Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A theological "giant": An interview with Gustavo Gutierrez

by Mauro Castagnaro (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Jesus (Italiano/Português)
No. 10, October 2013

He was one of the fathers of liberation theology and, as such, he was in the Vatican's sights a long time. Now that Gustavo Gutierrez has been received by Pope Francis and his work has been reevaluated, he takes stock of the past serenely and outlines future challenges.

Seeing him so small and feeble, stumbling as he walks, leaning on a stick in the cloisters of the Archdiocesan Seminary of Seveso, Province of Milan, it is hard to think that Father Gustavo Gutiérrez is the source of a theological movement that, over the last four decades, has motivated the participation of thousands of Christians in the struggle for social justice, has disturbed the sleep of the powerful (enough to merit study by conservative centers in the United States and special conferences by armies throughout the Americas), and has sparked controversy in the church institution itself, mainly because of its supposed dependence on Marxism. But when this 85-year-old priest opens his mouth, then it is understood that we are facing a "giant" of Christian thought.

The "father" of liberation theology has come to Italy to participate in the 23rd National Congress of the Italian Theological Association (ITA) and present, with Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the book they wrote together titled Dalla parte dei poveri [On the side of the poor] at the Mantua Literary Festival.

This dialogue with Dom Müller and the later meeting, on September 12th, with Pope Francis in Santa Marta, were rightly defined as "historic" events, because in past decades, on the contrary, the organ of the Roman Curia responsible for monitoring orthodoxy has not shown much understanding regarding the liberation theologians, issuing two generally quite critical instructions in 1984 and in 1986, and censoring in various ways and to varying extents some authors, such as the Brazilians Leonardo Boff and Ivone Gebara, and the Spanish-born Salvadoran Jon Sobrino.

And it's with the subject of his friendship with Dom Müller that Father Gutierrez's long conversation with the journal Jesus begins:

"I met him in 1988," he explains, "when Father Josef Sayer, who was a missionary in Lima at the time and, later, director until last year of Misereor (an agency of the German Bishops' Conference that deals with cooperation for development), invited a group of German professors to a seminar in which I was asked to participate. Professor Müller, who taught dogmatic theology in Munich, told me at the end of the meeting that the discussion had reminded him of the importance of practice, a reason why he proposed coming periodically to Peru to lend a hand as professor. For 15 years, he always spent three or four weeks of his annual holidays teaching in the Cuzco seminary, whose students where indigenous people with a very low level of education, and devoting weekends to pastoral work in the rural areas. I haven't seen many European professors spending their holidays that way! Naturally, when he became bishop, he could only return to Peru for briefer periods. Over the years, our friendship grew. To sum it up, I though he was someone who was very open intellectually, who had the simplicity and courage to say that the liberation perspective changed his way of conceiving theology."

Here is the interview.

Do you think that Dom Müller's positive assessment is limited to your writings or does it also extend to liberation theology as a whole?

I never asked him, and indeed, when he talks about liberation theology, he just quotes me. But I can imagine, without being too wrong, that his assessment doesn't relate only to my reflections, because the positions of us liberation theologians are essentially the same, and I've never heard him criticize another author.

Liberation theology tried to interpret the Gospel message and Christian reflection "from the perspective of the poor." In recent decades, theological branches have been born from its trunk that are trying to do the same thing, but "from the perspective of women", "of indigenous people", "of homosexuals", etc ... What do you think of it?

It has always seemed important to me to have a comprehensive concept, which for me was "insignificance", because it is possible to be insignificant due to lack of money, but also due to skin color or the fact of not speaking the dominant language of a country well, like occurs in Peru with the indigenous half of the population. When I speak of "the poor", I'm not just referring to those who have a low income, but also to "those who don't count, who have no social weight," those who are marginalized or forgotten.

Already in the book A Theology of Liberation, I spoke about the despised ethnic groups and cultures too, and especially since 1975, about women -- so much so that the final document of the Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, held in Puebla in Mexico in 1979, took up one of my texts that speaks of them as "doubly oppressed, as poor people and as women." I haven't deepened this reflection much because women theologians in particular have done it, and it wasn't necessary to repeat what they've said. Feminist theology derives from the experience of women, and this seems important to me, it interests me greatly. But it's not a theology only for women, because it has a universal dimension.

Frei Betto often emphasizes that, in the last decade, in Latin America, government leaders have come to power who are ideologically linked to the "option for the poor" and liberation theology. What do you think of this statement?

I strongly distrust these identifications. Certainly, the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, who has a Christian education, having studied at Louvain with Father François Houtart, knows our world and has made reference to it. At the same time, he's an economist with his ideas. And the head of state of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, has often mentioned Archbishop Romero, who is also a symbol for the whole country. Political leaders have every right to quote these references, because it means that, for them, they're significant, and this makes me happy.

The Church -- I speak of the Church, because the ideas that are attributed to liberation theology are also present in the documents of the Latin American bishops -- motivated, but not by itself, interest in policies for the poor, justice, human rights, and many people have identified with liberation theology, but it's not a club or a political party in which we enroll! So I don't think you can say that a president is linked to it. I have no doubt - and I like that - that the Church in Latin America over the past 40 years has greatly influenced society.

And, on the other hand, how much government repression was based on the fight against liberation theology! Therefore, it is present in the political environment, for better or worse, but there are other factors that have influence. Many years ago, a journalist from Barcelona asked my opinion about the Sandinista revolution that had triumphed in Nicaragua, defining it as "the work of people connected to liberation theology." I objected, saying I thought there were more important elements than liberation theology. If there was a revolution in Nicaragua, it was due, above all, to the violence and injustice of the Somoza dictatorship. We must not lose our sense of proportion! Liberation theology has certainly motivated many people, but you can't attribute all actions to it. I rejoice that it has had an influence -- theology is done to change the world! But it's not true that Latin America has changed because of it.

You've been working on the issue of religious pluralism for some time. What's your position on it?

It's a very important subject on which I've been reflecting for years. I participated in various meetings on interfaith dialogue, but I never saw representatives of the African animist religions so widespread on that continent, or of the indigenous peoples of Amazonia, but just the "great world religions," -- i.e. Islam, Shintoism, Hinduism, Judaism, which has relatively few adherents but is very important, and so on. This doesn't seem right to me if we want to build a scientific hypothesis about religions that is convincing. Interreligious dialogue is very interesting, but to participate in it, having respect for others is enough.

The real problem with respect to the theology of religions is the one of the status of Christ as the unique and universal savior. I'm sorry to say it, but I think that no theory developed so far by the theological community is satisfactory, and it strikes me that Paul Knitter, whom I know well and who has reflected and written about it more than I, says more or less the same thing in his latest book, ie, that what we have produced up to now are still approximations, and the current hypotheses have only dispelled the fog a bit.

In particular, the tripartite division "exclusivism - inclusivism - pluralism", which was helpful at a certain moment, seems outdated to me, because existing positions among theologians can no longer be attributable to these three categories. You have to have the modesty to admit that we need to delve deeper still into the theme on the theological level which, however, is not a precondition for dialogue with other religions, essential for getting to know one another. I also spoke about all this with Father Jacques Dupuis, whom I saw suffer from being misunderstood by the Church. Dupuis died sadly, after being treated very badly ... "

Mistreated like you...

Yes, me too, at one time. But then I learned that you don't need to lose your sense of humor, a virtue that helps us not to feel like the center of the world or a perpetual exile, not to take ourselves too seriously, and that keeps us from becoming bitter. I like to laugh a lot and I think this has helped me in difficult times. One should move forward, without feeling indispensable, because theological reflection would go on without me too. However, I was never the subject a process [by the CDF] but of a dialogue -- even though I became aware of it after it had already started!

What was your spirit during those times when you felt the hierarchy's mistrust of you?

It's unpleasant to hear that you're defined as "someone who has infiltrated the Church to destroy it." It's normal for someone to say they don't agree with you, but that accusation was crazy! The controversy also had a strong media dimension in Peru; bishops and politicians became involved in it. I had a lot of conversations. I didn't persuade anyone of my positions, but maybe they realized that what they believed about me wasn't true. In Rome, where they're more educated, they understood more and asked me about Marxism only the first time. Then they focused on more precisely theological issues.

It was a case that lasted several years until, in 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a brief text to say that the dialogue had concluded satisfactorily. They hadn't found anything erroneous. It was a bad time, not only because of the relationship with Rome, but also because of the situation in Peru. But I'm stubborn and I constantly tried to get them to explain the criticisms, because that also serves others, rather than submitting without discussion or breaking off the dialogue.

The election of Pope Francis and his wish for a "poor Church for the poor" led many to talk about the "revenge" of liberation theology. What do you think? And what are the challenges facing the new pope in your opinion?

The Pope loves the poor because he has read the Gospel and understood it. It may even be that he knows liberation theology, and if it helped him avail himself of this important Christian perspective, so much the better! But the challenge of the poor has been present a long time on the Church's horizons, otherwise the martyrdom that we have experienced in Latin America, starting with bishops such as Enrique Angelelli in Argentina, Oscar Romero in El Salvador, and Juan Gerardi in Guatemala could not be understood. Building this "poor Church for the poor" is a great move.

And what consequences does it have?

Saying that poverty is a major challenge for the Church implies making changes. For example, the need for the needs of the poor to be the main policy concern should be stated more forcefully in every country, even without proposing specific programs, because that's up to civil society and politics. And the problem of poverty can't be reduced to the economic aspect, but involves, for example, cultural diversity, as is evident in Peru where most of the population has indigenous roots. The problems vary from country to country and the proposals should be very specific. I'm convinced that assuming the perspective of the last and the least changes the behavior of Christians. We always speak of Latin America as a "Catholic continent" but this immense poverty puts that into question because our faith is not reduced to fulfilling some religious obligations that have little meaning if not accompanied by the struggle for justice. All Christians ought to share the commitment to human dignity, to human rights.

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